iMentor's Claytoya Tugwell Delivers Graduation Remarks at Brooklyn High School

This week we were honored to have our own Claytoya Tugwell, a leader in iMentor’s post-secondary success program, deliver remarks to the graduating class at the International High School of Lafayette in Brooklyn, NY, where she’s worked closely with students for the last two years.

Read the full text of Claytoya’s speech below.

To the Class of 2019, congratulations! You made it!

Welcome guests, faculty, honorable parents and respected teachers, fellow mentors and distinguished champions of our student’s success. It is an absolute honor to greet you as we celebrate our super passionate, highly motivated, and extraordinarily hard working IHSL graduates! Today is a truly a remarkable day.

As the associate director of iMentor’s Post-Secondary Program, I’ve heard all about the unique stories and triumphs you’ve experienced on your journey to make it to this very significant moment in time. It is no secret that for the past four years, you’ve exercised great patience and commitment, and maintained deep faith in yourselves in order to overcome and master the roller-coaster realities of American high school life.

As international scholars, athletes, part-time employees, and family care-givers, you’ve been relentless at creating better opportunities for yourselves and your families to grow and succeed in New York City.

Amidst the challenges of adapting to a new culture, a new city, a new school system with new rules and unfamiliar traditions, you’ve totally killed the game: waking up at the crack of dawn to make it on time to your early morning classes and spending countless hours perfecting your English so you can ace those ridiculously long homework assignments; sacrificing your precious weeknights hosting student club events; doing community service; prepping for SATs; working on college applications; and applying for paid job.

You did all this while magically finding time to meet with your lovely mentors, make lifetime besties, and turn up at prom! You are literally the definition of Youth Leaders. As first-generation American high school graduates and first-generation American college-bound students, no one can ever take these accomplishments away from you—no one! Everyone, Let’s give our graduates one round of applause!

Many, many years ago, I, like you, made my way across a stage to receive my high school diploma. Student government president at Francis Lewis High School and ranked #4 in my graduating class of 950 seniors, I was the first ever in my family to graduate high school and attend college in America.

At the time, I had received a full ride to Columbia University and was set to study political science and African American studies, which was a big deal to my two amazing immigrant parents who migrated from Jamaica, West indies, worked 12 and 16 hour days—my mother a babysitter/nanny and my father a warehouse worker—to make a better life for us and send money to help our family abroad.

Because I grew up in Queens, New York, in a low-income community with high public school dropout rates and lots of gang violence, I felt like I had to prove to my parents that all their sacrifices to have me be here in America was worth something good. So naturally, my game plan after high school graduation was simple: Go to college, live on campus, join a million clubs, make everyone like me, get three jobs like Jay Z, impress all my teachers, become top of my class, and graduate to get this money.…in that exact order!

It didn’t quite work out like as planned.

In fact, life after high school graduation was the complete opposite. When I arrived on campus, I was shocked. In a new and competitive environment, I was feeling stressed, academically inadequate, homesick, and culturally out of place. All of a sudden, for the first time, I wasn’t one of the smartest kids in my class, just “regular smart” and struggling to keep up with all of my weekly readings. The realities of the job market hit me like a brick in the face. As a recent high school grad, I was now “just a college kid,” so my resume absolutely could not compete with the 30-, 40-, or 50-year-old who had no college education but over 10-15 years of professional work experience.

On campus, I was considered one of the poorest students in my classes because I couldn’t afford to hang out at expensive parties, go on fancy vacations during winter break, or buy community service trip to South America. My campus advisors barely paid any attention to my requests for help, my high school friends had moved on with their own lives, and when I would call my parents crying and begging to come home of course, my parents could not understand and could not help because they had no idea about what I was going through.

At my lowest point, people were telling me to quit, leave college, and find a job close to home so I could support my family. If it wasn’t for professors who cared, my loving mentors from the New Americans Program, and all the amazing friends I made along the way while participating in student clubs like Columbia Black Student Organization, Columbia Student Council, and Columbia Gay and Straight Alliance, I would have never graduated college with top grades.

It really took believing in myself, opening up to my family about my new experiences, reaching out to complete strangers for guidance, and trusting my process when it was most uncomfortable and most difficult to think positive. Like so many first-generation American college students, this was and continues to be my key to success.

When you graduate and you leave this place, the world is going to begin to tell you new things about who they think you are and what you cannot be. Even with all the success, at times, you are going to be disappointed, discouraged, and even enraged by the lack of compassion, support, respect and love you receive from people who are supposed to lift you up and help you make a way for yourself and your family.

Whenever you are feeling alone and overwhelmed, any time you feel like the academic pressure is to great and the financial burden is too high, I want you to remember these two things:

Number 1. You are the author of your own destiny and you have the power to be your own advocate. Beyond the ugly politics on immigration in this country, you will thrive because everything in your family culture and community history has made you strong, special, resilient, and unstoppable. Your personal story, your native traditions, your passion, your work ethic, and your intellect are your greatest gifts to any college classroom and any workplace; the reason America has been great and will continue to be great again and again and again for generations to come. Make new friends, be open to new experiences, don’t worry about being perfect, just focus on becoming excellent at the things you care the most about. With a smart plan, you can do anything you dream of.

Number 2. You are not alone. You are a part of one of the biggest and baddest families in all of New York City—iMentor is rolling 10,000+ staff members, mentees, and mentors deep, and we will always be by your side, ready to collaborate with you, advocate for you, and make professional connections for you and your family.

Now, my bold, brilliant, and beautiful, students, the time has come for you to own your future like it’s your birthday. Walk into your own success without asking for permission or waiting for others to welcome you. For in the words of the great French West Indian political philosopher, Ibrahim Frantz Fanon: “I should constantly remind myself that the real leap consists in introducing invention into existence. In the world through which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself.”

To the class of 2019, you are amazing and you will change the world! iMentor loves you and wishes you all the best in your future endeavors. Congratulations!